Not since Stewart O’Nan’s A Prayer for the Dying have I been this uncomfortable while reading a book. And I mean that in the best possible way. In both instances, the strength of the writing, a phenomenal sense of place, and a compelling story pulled me through, even if the subject matter made for pins-and-needles reading.
Set in 1970, Drop City is a California commune of free-loving, pot-smoking, peace-talking hippies who pack up their Partridge Family bus for the promised land of Alaska. Salmon are easily plucked from the rivers, timber is free for the taking, and with all that summertime daylight, pot will grow like crazy. Or so they think.
In a parallel story, a quick-tempered Alaskan named Cess really knows what it takes to live off the land. He’s one of three guys competing for Pamela, a sort of mail-order bride who’s returned to Alaska to marry the best guy available and share the toil and reward of living in the wilderness. Their developing relationship and Cess’ escalating pissing match with local bad boy, bush pilot Joe Bosky, sets the stage for the flower children’s arrival.
Sparks fly, but not necessarily in the way you’d anticipate. Personalities clash, but mostly within each tribe, not between them. While Cess and Joe’s personal war becomes more violent, life on the commune isn’t all peace and love either. Without lapsing into caricature, Boyle masterfully shows Drop City in all its un-romanticized true light. It’s hard to get anything done in a commune made up of folks who’ve dropped out to follow their own bliss, living to get high and drink sweet wine. Setting the welcome map out for all leads to rivalries, jealousies, and violent confrontations. In other words, human nature prevails even when you try to escape it.
Now, why was I so tense while reading Drop City? Bad things happen, and they keep on happening — characters make choices, tensions mount, and heck, they’re in the wilds of Alaska where bears and men don’t think twice about killing to survive — and you just know this can’t be heading for a happy ending. But at some point in the middle of the book, my engagement in the story stepped up and I was turning pages as fast as I could, not because I wanted to get through, but because I couldn’t wait to find out what happens next. [***** out of 5]